One of the most surreal aspects of the Practical is its long passages of sample sentences. After a time, they begi to read like the finest surrealist literature. Take this paragraph, from the section on verbs: Our pastoral scene in the beginning (horse, stable, corn) gives way to an apparent family drama in the vein of William Faulkner (Robert's glance, smoke, knives, parched earth). There is a sudden and inexplicable threat from nature (a tiger!) which is just as inexplicably dispatched (the serpent crushes the tiger!). We are left with matters unresolved (the bird on the fence). The next paragraph:
The destructive violence of pagan Rome (Brutus, Mummius) gives way to the wonder of creation and the iron hand of George Washington. Birds and water in the next sentences seem to indicate the utopian ideals of the young American country on the morning of its birth, which is supported by the upright moral tone of the good man avoiding vice. The boy's stumble, the woman's sins, and the mud, however, indicate that this perfect project has become less than idyllic, even as the final sentence implies that those utopian ideals are still the goal (up the hill).
The strangest of all:
Again, the pastoral (mother, oxen) gives way to something darker (one man's debt and another's wealth). The turning wheel of the boy indicates the wheel of fate, a change in each character's position. Now it is the other man who is rich (possesses a large estate). The boy's fire is an omen of danger, of this John who has sinister plans that our narrator is prescient enough to uncover. Despite this knowledge, our narrator fails in his confrontation with John, and the last sentence on the price of the book -- the book you are holding in your hands as you read this, perhaps? -- indicates just how far he has fallen in the course of the narrative's unfolding.
Supposedly, of course, there is no connection between these sentences. They are grammatical exercises, meant to help the reader become comfortable with picking out the verb and its subject. But the fact that they are placed in paragraphs confuses the matter a little bit. If they were listed out, it would not feel so much like a story. But in paragraphs, you start to assume there must be an inherent connection between the scenes that unfold. Otherwise, how would you know where to put the paragraph breaks? Why not have just one long text block?
Somehow, this section on verbs gets near the heart of storytelling without realizing it. The Practical likes to think of itself as being clear and concise and rigid. Everything can be put into a box, classified and categorized and labeled to within an inch of its life. But then in the verb section, the reader is present with the following exercise:
Suddenly it is time for Victorian Mad Libs.
Verbs really are the heart of story. You can leave out almost any other part of speech -- adjectives and adverbs in particular, according to every piece of writing advice everywhere -- but you have to have the verbs, even if they're abstract and otherworldly things like think or worry or imagine. Even Victorian Mad Libs, with its collection of the world's most mundane nouns, can't protect itself from the potential of becoming either a stomach-emptying gore-fest (The dog exsanguinated on the grass) or a Proustian philosophical narrative (Time reverses swiftly) or anything else you like.